One of the most challenging conversations I have when building strategy is the one that seeks to nail down ‘purpose’. It isn’t an existential or mid-life crisis type of discussion that seeks to challenge the fabric of being, just a simple question: “what is our collective purpose and for whose benefit?”
A recent session on purpose caused an initial tumbleweed moment but then people started to warm up:
- it’s to enable access to justice
- it’s to serve the best interests of our clients
- it’s to make money
- it’s to help people manage through difficult times
There you have 4 different answers from 4 different people who in turn managed 4 different areas. So, which one of them was the correct answer? The answer is that none of them were representative of the purpose of the business as it currently operated or planned to in the future.
- was reflective of an identity given to one area
- is a duty
- is an outcome
- would be close to a purpose if services were limited to dealing with ‘distressed’ events
So, here’s one for you: what’s your purpose?
You might have an answer to that, you might not. It could depend on the role you play within the legal system or whether you’re accessing services. It might depend on the area of law that you serve or the type of client you are serving. It could depend on the size of the issue at stake or the personal impact. It could be a notion of fairness, rule of law or a means to an end. It could be based upon your reason for entering the law in the first place, a text book perfect answer, or your thinking may have morphed over time. It could also depend on the time of day and how you’re feeling about the balance of the universe!
And the next one: is your purpose the same as your colleagues?
It could be the “why are we here?” type questions that don’t really matter to you. You know what you are and if somebody wants to have a different guiding light then that’s just fine for every day. However, when you’re setting strategy and deciding on an execution approach having clarity on the purpose of your business is vitally important. It most definitely goes beyond the thing that you do, the way you do it or the amount of cash you make. If you’re all rocking up to work with a different idea of purpose you might rub along nicely most of the time but is there a high chance that you’re pursuing different agendas?
Using the 4 examples above, is one of your colleagues advancing the interests of one area to the detriment of the other? Is another using notions of innate sense of ‘duty’ or ethical standing to avoid engaging in self-improvement to the detriment of client experience? Is one all about the money-making and personal advancement as yet another colleague is thrown under a bus? Then there’s you and your distressed clients who take precedence over your managerial responsibilities meaning that developing people seems a luxury that you can’t afford, and people become wiser through error as you roll your eyes and mutter “might as well do it myself”.
Having a collective purpose sets the reason for being. It’s the ‘thing’ from which you hang a mission statement that explains to your audience how you’re going to ensure you keep delivering your purpose. Your purpose and mission statement help set ’how we do things around here’, sometimes referred to as ‘values’ and allows people to hold each other to account. It’s also what helps define your unique competing space, setting the business apart from others and allows you to develop programmes of activity such as employee propositions, marketing campaigns and activities promoting social responsibility.
Thinking about purpose should invoke your inner storyteller because when you’re storytelling being “a provider of legal services” isn’t that inspiring. Having a purpose such as “sharing our knowledge to empower decisions” allows you to build a continuous thread externally and internally. An organisation with that kind of purpose helps individuals to view their knowledge as an enabler, understanding that it has to be captured, unpacked and explained in ways that resonate with the individual to achieve the objective of empowerment. An organisation that defines itself in that way will use purpose to hold to account: if somebody says they don’t understand, are confused, or are unsure on what to do next then knowledge hasn’t been used to empower and action needs to be taken.
Clearly articulating your collective purpose provides the opportunity to consensus build as you invite people to ‘buy-in’. It can create a sense of personal achievement as people understand the role they play in helping advance the purpose. It gives leadership a yard stick against which to measure future decisions and to keep ‘on point’ as your organisation evolves and drives change.
An organisation without a purpose is like a journey without a clear destination. You might enjoy the ride but who gets to declare success when you’re in St Ives in Cornwall and I’m in St Ives near Cambridge?